PITTSBURGH -- When the non-waiver trading period came and went without a move from the Pirates, general manager Neal Huntington defended the team's inaction by pointing to the players he already had. Some -- such as Starling Marte at the time, and Gerrit Cole -- were coming back from injuries. Others, Huntington said, were "starting to put some things together."
Francisco Liriano, one of the latter, has thus far made good on the front office's hope. But no amount of foresight or optimism at the deadline could have helped the Pirates prepare for Andrew McCutchen's injury, or to a lesser extent Neil Walker's maladies. The Pirates overcame their absence, and the dearth of offense as a result, in a three-game winning streak this week.
Saturday night, it buried them.
Liriano's offense left him helpless in a 2-1 defeat against Eric Stults and the San Diego Padres at PNC Park Saturday night, but Liriano continued his strong performance from the past three weeks. Liriano allowed two runs in the first inning, then stifled the Padres for the next six.
After Liriano finished seven innings and allowed only those two runs, he lowered his ERA in his past five starts to 1.69. In 32 innings during those starts, opposing hitters have 18 hits and 33 strikeouts.
Following Liriano's final start before the All-Star break, which coincided with his first start off the disabled list, his ERA was 4.72. He lowered it to 3.82 as a result of his past five outings.
Liriano allowed the first five batters to reach base in the first and loaded the bases without recording an out. Everth Cabrera reached on an infield single, stole second and went to third on Yangervis Solarte's hit. Liriano hit Tommy Medica to load the bases.
Jedd Gyorko singled home a run. Jayson Nix threw home to prevent the run on Chris Nelson's grounder. Yasmani Grandal's fly ball to right field scored a second run, but Jordy Mercer intercepted Gregory Polanco's throw and caught Nelson between first and second to end the inning.
Liriano pitched 5 2/3 perfect innings beginning with the start of the second issuing two-out walk to Grandal in the seventh. During that span, he allowed one ball out of the infield, a harmless fly to right, while recording 11 ground-ball outs and striking out four.
Liriano kept the majority of his pitches in the lower half of the strike zone. When batters weren't swinging over his changeup, they were putting it on the ground.
Stults, a 34-year-old lefty, relied on a fastball that struggled to touch 90 mph, a changeup that hovered around 80 and a curveball that often crossed the plate in the 60s. Against that arsenal, the Pirates scratched one run and seven hits in 6 1/3 innings.
After scoring seven runs in consecutive games against the Miami Marlins earlier this week, the Pirates compiled a combined three in their past two games. Their lineup again lacked McCutchen and Walker, though Walker pinch-hit in the ninth. Jayson Nix and Michael Martinez batted seventh and eighth Saturday night.
For the second game in a row, Josh Harrison got a hit to start the bottom of the first. In a sign that his left ankle, which Cabrera rolled over in a play at second base Friday night, was fit for duty, Harrison stole second. He scored on Russell Martin's single.
That was all. The Pirates left a man in scoring position in the fourth and fifth innings, but couldn't do much against Stults. Nix singled for the second time to start the seventh and Martinez bunted to advance the runner to second. Lefty Alex Torres entered to face pinch-hitter Pedro Alvarez, who flied out.
Righty Nick Vincent entered to face Harrison, who grounded out.
Jordy Mercer singled and Martin doubled in the eighth, putting two men in scoring position, but Ike Davis, Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco stranded them there.
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